Kids love activities that have an ick factor. For this game, a volunteer holds two buckets behind "nose holes" constructed on a piece of plywood or sturdy cardboard. One "hole" contains a prize while the other is filled with slime. For extra giggles, add a fuzzy moustache under the nose, as did the Trailblazer Elementary PTO in Highlands Ranch, Colo.
Corn Cob Toss
For its fall festival, the New Middletown Elementary PTO in Corydon, Ind., had students try to toss ears of Indian corn from a local farmer through holes in a panel painted like candy corn.
Lego Fire Walk
Use small pieces of lumber to build a frame, then fill it with loose plastic bricks and challenge students to walk all the way across. At the PTA carnival at Peninsula Elementary in Portland, Ore., teachers played conga drums in the background as kids took the dare.
Parents from the Nijo-Iri Elementary PTA in Livonia, Mich., measured and cut pieces of lumber into a uniform size to mimic the tabletop stacking game. Be sure to remind kids to be watchful of falling pieces when it looks like the tower might topple!
Inspired by the Angry Birds computer game and movie, the North Springfield (Va.) Elementary PTA made its own version out of cardboard boxes and rubber balls. You can allow kids to kick balls toward the tower of cardboard boxes or if you’re feeling brave, make your own version of a giant slingshot. You’ll need time between turns to reset the boxes.
Who knew something so simple could be so intriguing to kids? Parents at Trajan Elementary in Orangevale, Calif., built a frame to hold up a door. Kids tried multiple keys, hoping to find the one that opened the lock. A volunteer sat on the other side of the door, ready to hand out a prize.
Pool Noodle Javelin Throw
To create a safe throwing game, use duct tape to bend pool noodles into circles and hang them from a frame, like this one used by the Deep Springs Elementary PTA in Lexington, Ky. Give kids a set number of throws, awarding a prize when a pool noodle makes it through a goal.
A handy parent put together this backdrop for playing the Hasbro game Pie Face. The backdrop was made to resemble the box the game comes in and includes a spinner, made by a dad from the Hope (N.J.) Township PTA.
Toy Claw Machine
Create your own version of the toy grabber machine popular in arcades and some restaurants and in the movie Toy Story. This version from the Brazos Elementary PTE in Orchard, Texas, was created using a heavy-duty cardboard box, red wrapping paper, and drawer liner. Kids used a grabber to try to retrieve the toy of their choice.
Toilet Paper Toss
There’s no doubt kids love potty humor. Indulge them a bit with a game where the aim is to throw toilet paper through an open toilet seat. The Trailblazer PTO created a frame to hold up the seats. Another option is to place toilet seats over empty 5-gallon buckets.
Other Ways To Ramp Up the Fun
Bet the Farm
Invite a local health food store or farming co-op to hold a farming/organic gardening seminar. Offer families the opportunity to plant seedlings and take home a starter garden. If your community doesn’t have a nifty mobile farmers market like the one shown here, from Richmond, Va.-based Farm to Family, just improvise. Send out a request to families for the use of their pickup trucks and set them up with supplies like potting soil, containers, and seeds for herbs, hot peppers, vegetables, and flowers.
Stocking Up on Supplies
Before your event, have teachers write out a list of items that they need in their classrooms, such as dry-erase markers, pencils, and index cards. Offer game tickets to families who bring classroom supplies on the day of your school carnival, and set up boxes to collect the items that each classroom brings in. In the afternoon, judge to see which class has brought in the most supplies; offer the winning class a half-hour of free play on the inflatables at the end of the day.
In addition to fun and games, think about offering educational workshops or specialty seminars for guests of all ages; enlist the help and expertise of teachers in areas like woodshop, visual arts, ceramics, and even foreign languages. Have participants register in advance so you can be prepared for class sizes with enough materials and supplies.
Beat the Heat
To keep families cool in hot weather, think about renting a few tents or shade structures and offer items such as shaved ice and water toys. If a wet-and-wild play area is an option, let families know in advance to bring bathing suits and towels. Be sure to avoid dirt areas so you don’t end up with a whole lot of mud!
Art for Sale
Set up a gallery of student art. Coordinate with the art teacher to display paintings, sculptures, or other projects that are worthy of display or sale.
Whose Carnival Is It, Anyway?
Your community theater or a local college likely has a comedy improv performance troupe that could be booked for a modest fee or that would do the gig on a tips-only basis. Consider scheduling two or three shows at various times throughout the day so there’s enough audience participation. Encourage your guests to shout out some outrageous scenarios or be ready to get up on stage and get into the comedic action.
Last year, the Creek View Elementary PTO in Maylene, Ala., added an art station tent to its carnival for people of all ages to paint pictures and make jewelry. Six to eight tables were set up with art paper, gallon buckets of paint, and brushes in a variety of sizes, as well as bowls of mixed beads and precut jewelry cords to make bracelets and necklaces. Clothesline strung around three sides of the tent provided a place for the paintings to dry.
Going to the Dogs
Work with local law enforcement offices with a K-9 unit to offer a police exhibit. Kids love seeing the dogs respond to a criminal threat, and it’s a great way for students to meet some of the first responders in their community.
One Book, Two Books, Old Books, New Books
Allow attendees who bring a slightly worn book to swap it for another. Also consider setting up a small reading area for kids who want to take a break from the carnival’s activities.
Go Big or Go Home
If you’re tired of the same old, same old at your carnival, take a tip from the planners of the 2012 Splatter festival in Dublin, Calif. The event featured a variety of interactive, large-scale activities that attendees could participate in (each one led by a professional artist): a work of chalk art, a sculpture made out of canned goods, and a balloon sculpture in the form of spaghetti and meatballs.
Let’s Have a Do-Over
Add an “extreme makeover” component to your carnival complete with hair stylists, manicurists, makeup artists, and fashion consultants. (Hint: Ask local boutiques and clothing stores whether they might want to showcase some of their wares for the day.) And don’t forget to arrange a family portrait session to take photos after everyone is all gussied up!
It’s a Slam Dunk
At the Seneca Elementary PTO’s fall carnival in Neosho, Mo., students who sold three or more booklets during the fall fundraiser received a wristband that allowed them free unlimited play on the inflatables. They also got the opportunity to dunk their favorite Manley: Husband-and-wife team Nathan Manley, principal of Seneca Intermediate School, and kindergarten teacher Jennifer Manley competed to see who could raise the most money in their allotted time slot in the dunk tank. Three chances to dunk either Manley cost a dollar. The competition was billed as Manley vs. Manley.
A Wheel Challenge
If there’s a bicycle repair shop in your town, consider asking the owner to loan you a few “challenge” bikes (with wobbly steering and broken chains!) and dare parents and kids to ride them a certain distance for a prize.
Instant Grand Prix
Some companies that rent amusement rides now offer go-karts that are fully electric (using no gas or oil). An inflatable track can be set up in your school’s indoor gym or basketball court, creating a safe area for the drivers to race.
Playing With Trash
In the weeks leading up to the carnival, invite parents to donate recyclables such as cardboard boxes, paper, plastic, paper towel tubes, leftover bathroom tiles, etc. Allow families to choose from the recyclable heap to create their entry for a Best Recycled Game contest.
Beat Them at Their Own Games
It was game on at this year’s communitywide carnival hosted by the PTCs at five elementary schools in Prior Lake and Savage, Minn. Planners rented a video game truck, which parked right outside the school doors. Players could enter the truck to try their choice of video games, 15 minutes per turn. They also arranged a “jail and bail”: Attendees checked in with a “deputy” to fill out an arrest warrant. The deputy arrested the “suspect,” took a mug shot, and threw them in the slammer. The prisoner had to do time until bail (a donation) was made.
Eyes on the Prize
If you don’t already have one, consider setting up a central redemption area for students to trade in their winning tickets for more substantial prizes instead of small trinkets at each game area. In addition to novelty items, consider stocking school-related prizes, such as notebooks, markers, pocket dictionaries, etc. Also include some creative same-day prizes, such as a cut-in-line pass for the inflatables or a coupon for a free dunk tank try.
Silly String Battle Ring: Tape Hula-Hoops to the floor and have students stand inside while they spray silly string on a friend.
Radar Basketball: Ask the police department to use radar guns to time how fast students can shoot basketballs into a goal.
Hula-Hoop Toss: Replace your ring toss game with one in which students try to toss a Hula-Hoop over a giant stuffed animal. Award smaller prizes so that the stuffed animals stay in place throughout your event.
Bowl Over the Principal: Tape photos of the principal and school staff members to bowling pins and see how many of them the students can knock over.
Loch Ness Monster Fishing: Change up your fishing pond game with some dry ice and pool noodles that form humps in the water resembling the famous Nessie. Remind kids not to touch the water.
Adopt a Pet: Before the carnival, people donate gently used stuffed animals from home, and the toys are sorted by size. Players spin a wheel with labels that say “small,” “medium,” and “large” and get to take home a stuffed animal that corresponds to the size the spinning wheels stops on.
Speed Racer: Build or borrow a wooden ramp with two lanes sized for small toy cars. Two students can race against one another. The winner gets to keep their car as a prize.
Originally posted in 2013 and updated regularly. Patty Catalano contributed to this article.